WASHINGTON – Shaking ground and swaying buildings sent panicked people rushing for exits, pouring into streets or diving under desks. For some in Washington and New York and elsewhere along the East Coast, their first thoughts turned to terrorism — not nature.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., was walking up Capitol Hill on his way to preside over a pro-forma session of the Senate when Tuesday's earthquake hit. Feeling the ground sway, he sat down on a bench.
"My concern was that it was something other than an earthquake," Coons said. He ended up presiding over a 22-second technical session in a conference room of a building near the Capitol.
A quake was not the first thought either for Lisa Goeas, who works in a building a few blocks from the White House and near a city subway station.
"Our building is right across the street from the Metro, so we thought a bomb went off," said a shaken Goeas, who fled her office with her colleagues.
At the majestic Washington National Cathedral, at least three of the four pinnacles on the central tower fell off and the central tower appeared to be leaning, a spokesman said. The pinnacles are the top stones on the cathedral's towers.
The earthquake centered in Virginia was felt as far south as South Carolina and north to Massachusetts, where a vacationing President Barack Obama was about to tee off in a round of golf on Martha's Vineyard. Reporters said they felt the temblor, but it didn't keep Obama from continuing play.
As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, recollections of the terrorist attacks of 2001 crossed many minds.
In New York, workers in the Empire State Building spilled into the streets, some having descended dozens of flights of stairs.
"I felt dizzy, man," said Adrian Ollivierre, a 28-year-old accountant who was in his office on the 60th floor. "I thought I was having maybe a heart attack, and I saw everybody running. I think what it is, is the paranoia that happens from 9/11, and that's why I'm still out here — because, I'm sorry, I'm not playing with my life."
His colleague, Caitlin Trupiano, said no one in the accounting office knew at first that it was a quake.
"I ran down all 60 flights. I wasn't waiting for the elevator," she said. "We were just counting the floors as we came down."
Outside another exit, on 34th Street, waiting with colleagues from a 52nd floor office, software developer Nathan Chaffee described how the tremor felt. "I was sitting at my desk and all of a sudden my chair is going like this," he said, bending his knees in a repeated bucking motion. "And I thought, 'Am I falling?'"
His colleague Marty Wiesner rushed to the window to look out and around. "I thought we'd been hit by an airplane," he said.
In Washington, the U.S. Park Service evacuated and closed all monuments and memorials along the National Mall. At Reagan National Airport, ceiling tiles fell during a few seconds of shaking. Officials reported some minor damage at the Supreme Court, including fallen plaster in the court's top-floor gym and small shards of marble near elevators on the first floor.
The Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and federal agencies in and around Washington were evacuated in whole or in part. Many sent nonemergency workers home for the day as officials checked buildings for damage. The Capitol was reopened by late afternoon for people to retrieve personal items and to secure offices as structural engineers checked other buildings in the complex.
"As of now," Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said, "tomorrow is expected to be a regular workday."
At the Pentagon, where a hijacked jetliner crashed on Sept. 11, the shaking sent people streaming into corridors. Light fixtures suspended from the ceiling swayed back and forth in some areas as people were urged to evacuate the building.
The main damage reported in the government's biggest workspace came from a broken water pipe, which led officials to shut down two corridors.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher, Eileen Sullivan, Mark Sherman in Washington and Adam Geller in New York contributed to this report.